What if I Had Understood the Grace of God as a Teenager?

God called me to trust in him when I was just three years old, but I didn’t really begin to understand his grace until I was seventeen.

Don’t get me wrong—I loved Jesus as a teenager. In the midst of high school heartaches and often tumultuous relationships with my parents, he was my refuge. But somewhere, somehow, I believed the lie that I had to be good in order to stay close to him, that my relationship with him was based on how well I was performing in my faith.

Essentially, this motivated me to work really hard at hiding my sin—and even harder at achieving the image of the perfect Christian kid. (You know, the one who never misses a day of reading her Bible, has all the right Sunday school answers, and faithfully serves her church.) I loved the moments when I felt close to God. And I enjoyed the praise I received from my parents and other Christian adults in my life for my efforts to follow Jesus; I threw myself into all kinds of activities in search of this affirmation. But whenever I failed either to hide my sin or to perform in these ways, my self-esteem plummeted. I pictured myself being pushed farther and farther away from God.

Still, something in me didn’t want to play the part of the good girl—at least, not all the time. The image I was trying to maintain was exhausting, and deep down I wanted to be liked by my peers too. I especially craved attention from boys, and I learned to get it: by being just the right mix of innocent and flirtatious.

My shallow understanding of God’s love led me to live a double life. I was genuinely interested in growing closer to Jesus, but I suspected that this was only possible by self-effort. Meanwhile, I also loved the thrill of being just a little rebellious—of lying to my parents about where I was going, of driving my car just a little recklessly on the open roads of central Illinois farm country, and of making out with my on-again-off-again boyfriend.

The Constant Search for Approval

Both of these approaches—my endless performance-oriented activities and my frenzied attention-seeking—became ways for me to feel valuable.

The only problem was, neither approach reliably “worked” for me. The approval of others was my drug. So whenever my boyfriend and I were on a break, or my parents and I were fighting, or I didn’t get the attention I craved, I began to spiral emotionally. My unhealthy dependence on the approval of others led me to run from the reality of God’s approval.

Dark thoughts gradually crept into my mind, and instead of banishing them with the truth of God’s Word, I indulged them. I began to imagine how good it would feel to escape my constant need for affirmation. I began imagining what it would feel like to escape life all together.

Finally, in a moment of desperation, I gave into the darkness and tried ending my own life.

Under the bright fluorescent lights of the emergency room, as doctors worked to heal what I had broken, a strange calm washed over me. It was the comforting realization that God was with me, even in my very worst moment. I recalled the words of Psalm 139, which I had memorized in middle school: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? . . . If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you” (vv. 7, 11–12a).

I Couldn’t Run Away from God

In the midst of the most shameful night of my life, I suddenly experienced the reality of those words: God had not abandoned me, even while I was running away. And for the first time, I realized that this was a gift, not something I had earned from him. In the darkest hour of my rebellion, he drew near, assuring me of his abundant love and presence.

In the years that followed, I found myself in church communities where the gospel of grace was preached regularly. I began to learn from God’s Word what I had already experienced: that God’s grace for me wasn’t only for salvation; it was for my entire future. His sacrifice on the cross was enough to cover all of my sin and shame. There was nothing I could do, no performance I could offer, that could add to what he had already done. And even in my worst sin, there was no way I could out-run his love for me.

This freed me to live in a whole new way. Slowly, there were steps toward reconciliation with my parents, a change of heart in my relationships with boys, and a genuine desire to love and serve the Lord. Perhaps most miraculously, God provided release from the dark thoughts with which I had so often struggled. The transformation wasn’t quick. In fact, it continues to this day. But God took my hard, divided heart and began to make it new (see Ezekiel 36:26).

The Story of a Man a Lot like Me

John’s gospel tells the story of a man named Nicodemus who, like me, found himself living a double life.

Nicodemus was a high-ranking member of the Jewish teaching class known as the Pharisees. These men were serious about studying the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) and about watching for the Messiah, whom the prophets had promised. They expected the Messiah to liberate them from the Roman Empire and to inaugurate a political kingdom that would restore Israel to glory. For many of them, Jesus didn’t fit this image.

Nicodemus found validation in his popular friends and his position, striving for excellence as one of Israel’s teachers.

The name Nicodemus means victory of the people. It resembles the modern brand name Nike. As my church’s senior pastor has explained, Nicodemus was the “Just-Do-It Man!” He imagined he could save himself by his own efforts and achievement.

On the other hand, Nicodemus was deeply curious about this Jesus who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. But in order to preserve his status, Nicodemus only went to Jesus under the cover of night, when he wouldn’t be seen by his fellow Pharisees. Jesus knew Nicodemus’s heart, just as he knows yours and mine. In John 3, Nicodemus tried to prove all that he knew about the Scriptures, but Jesus said to him, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v. 8). Jesus was saying that in order to be saved, Nicodemus must first experience God’s grace—something that is completely and entirely free. It’s something that Nicodemus couldn’t buy and something that he couldn’t control. Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to enter the kingdom of God, he must be born again. In other words, he must have a new heart.

Although Nicodemus didn’t initially accept Jesus’s invitation to new life, he was different. In John 7, we read that when some of the Jewish leaders were looking for a way to kill Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up. While he wasn’t quite ready to declare allegiance to Jesus—he also wasn’t willing to subject him to unfair treatment.

Nicodemus is mentioned once more in John’s gospel, when he provided a lavish offering to anoint Jesus’s body for burial. Maybe John included this snapshot to reassure us that Nicodemus’s heart truly had been changed: he had finally come to realize that he couldn’t “Just Do It.” His costly demonstration of honor for Jesus leads us to believe that Nicodemus had come to see his own need for God’s grace.

The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School

Like me, Nicodemus tried to get to God on his own terms, but found that his efforts didn’t work. He wanted a little bit of Jesus, and all the approval of his peers, too. His divided heart led him to hide parts of his life from others until Jesus finally captured his whole heart.

Soon after that day in the hospital when God captured my heart by grace, I read this quote, which resonates with trying to get to God on my own terms:

So long as we imagine that it is we who have to look for God, then we must often lose heart. But it is the other way about: he is looking for us. And so we can afford to recognize that very often we are not looking for God; far from it, we are in full flight from him, in high rebellion against him. And he knows that and has taken it into account. He has followed us into our own darkness; there where we thought finally to escape him, we run straight into his arms. So we do not have to erect a false piety for ourselves, to give us the hope of salvation. Our hope is in his determination to save us. And he will not give in!

Simon Tugwell, Prayer: Living with God (Springfield: Templegate, 1975), 52.

The Jesus I Want You to Know

Friend, this is the gospel I want you to know: God loves you so fiercely, and he is looking for you (even when you are on the run from him).

There is nothing you can do to prove yourself or earn your way to him, and there is nothing you can do to out-sin his grace. My choice to try to harm myself was a foolish one, and oh how I pray that you will learn from my mistakes. When you are tempted to run away, may you run to the God of grace instead. Our God has followed us into our darkest places by sending his beloved Son. Jesus did what we could never do by living the perfect life and dying the death we deserve. He has become the true victory by triumphing over sin and death forever. My prayer is that you will give him your whole heart and whole life, resting in the grace of the gospel.

Excerpt adapted from The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School © 2021 by Cameron Cole and Charlotte Getz. Published by New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.

The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School FrontCover

The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School

The pressure of being a teenager can be overwhelming. But the hardest thing can be feeling alone, that you have no one to share your most difficult problems with. In The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School, thirty authors from many different backgrounds come together to say, “We get it—and Jesus gets it too.” 

About the author

Chelsea Kingston Erickson

Chelsea Kingston Erickson, MDiv, serves as Editor of Youth Ministry Content and Director of Publishing for Rooted Ministry. Having served as a youth minister for thirteen years, Chelsea is passionate about teaching teenagers biblical theology and helping them learn to study Scripture for themselves. Chelsea lives north of Boston with her husband, Steve, and their two young sons.

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